Walk 24 - Milford Track 'Great Walk'

Described by some as the finest walk in the world, the Milford Track has become a NewZealand icon and a must-do on every visiting tramper (and many non-trampers) itineraries. Over 14,000 complete the 4-day tramp each year, some paying more for the comforts and luxury of a guided walk and private huts, others paying less to carry all their own gear and food and stay in public huts. Its popularity is such that to do the walk you have to make a reservation up to 4 months in advance, or more.

In fact the Milford Track has become somewhat of a machine, churning trampers through at a rate of 40 per day. The machine cannot be stopped; if the weather prevents movement between huts, trips on a particular day are cancelled rather than postponed or people midway may be helicoptered out to avoid bottlenecks and keep the machine moving smoothly. Given this and the 6-7,000 mm of rain that falls annually in this part of Fiordland, it is a bit of a lottery when you make your booking; the chance of completing a crossing without getting seriously rained on are less than 1 in 50. Two lots of 40 walkers had arrived to find their trips cancelled in the previous week, as 500mm of rain fell on the track in the last few days, causing the worst flooding and track damage in 10 years. They lost.

We entered the Milford Lottery in mid-October and the earliest that we could set out was March 12. It was the one set-in-concrete date of our trip and finally it had arrived. We were half-way home knowing that we could just set out, despite the flooding; after a week of rain, hail, lightning and snow, the weather forecast was at last looking promising, although we were told that we may have to be helicoptered across the worst section, if the track had not been repaired by the time we passed through.

Would the Milford stand up to its hype and was the hassle worth it? We were about to find out.

Day 1: Glade Wharf to Clinton Hut

Filing on to the ferry at Te Anau Downs

The Milford Track is a one-way track, meaning an industry has developed around getting trampers to and from the track ends. The Milford experience therefore starts with a one hour boat trip up the northern arm of Lake Te Anau, from Te Anau Downs to Glade Wharf. We joined our fellow trampers at the jetty late in the morning as sun and cloud battled for control of the sky and filed onto the ferry. Soon we were heading up the long northern arm of the lake, towards the cloudy peaks of Fiordland. Glade Wharf was 30cm under water when we arrived due to the 900 million cubic metres of water that had flowed into it over the past few days, but we quickly crossed on the extra planking and stepped onto land. I have to confess to a slight frisson - we were finally doing the Milford.

Looking towards the Fiordland mountains and the start of the track

Finally the Milford

The start of the track followed a broad path through the beech forest to Glade House, first stop for the guided walkers (or pamper-trampers as they are sometimes called). Looking through the lodge windows as we passed, I could see that they were in for a hard time - how could you choose between the '94 Hawkes Bay merlot and the '96 Marlborough pinot noir to go with the beef wellington that night!

Start of the track - a broad path in the beech forest

Crossing the grassy clearing of Glade House, we reached the long swingbridge over the Clinton River; the sun had finally emerged victorious over the clouds and it was amazing how clear the bottle-green water was just a few days after such serious flooding. The flat track continued along a freshly sandy path that followed the edge of the river, going bush a couple of times where it had been too close and had fallen in during the recent floods. The setting of this river was superb; a wide shallow stream surrounded by lush vegetation and framed by the steep walls of the glacier-carved valley, rising high above the forest.

Clinton River reflections across the glade

Looking toward Dole Pass in the Earle Mountains

Bottle green pool in the Clinton

Clinton riverscape

The first day on this track is a short 5km stroll and soon we reached the turn-off to the modern Clinton Hut complex, built in 1997 in the forest away from the stream that had claimed its predecessor. Lunch over, we wandered back to a nearby wetland boardwalk and then sat down to relax on the rocks alongside the clear green water of the Clinton.

The voracious sandflies, however, had other ideas and soon chased us back to the hut, where we spent a long, lazy afternoon enjoying the best weather we had had since the day on the Cascade Saddle.

Boardwalk across the sphagnum bog

Mt Anau (1958m) and the Earle Mountains

Clinton Hut complex

Nice swimming spot - shame about the sandflies!

Day 2: Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut

Content with a huge bowl of porridge and mug of hot tea, we headed down to rejoin the main track and follow it upstream along the edge of the Clinton River under a canopy of tall open beech. The steep valley walls kept us in a cold shade for much of the morning, as we wandered past rocky rapids and deep green pools in the river. Eventually, we emerged into a small clearing where we had our first glimpse of distant Mackinnon Pass. Leaving this, the track took us by a swampy area, whose still, dark waters reflected the nearby mountains and provided a home for some large languid eels.

Rocky section of the Clinton

Reflections in the swamp
Coral fungi

Sunlit wall, deep shaded valley

Hirere Shelter provided a good resting place to admire the nearby falls of the same name and top up with energy food, before we pushed on through some more beautiful sections of the river, overhung with lichen-covered tree branches.

After a while, we again emerged into a clearing, the larger Prairie Flat, and passed several small swamp pools, their dark mirror surfaces providing perfect reflections of the mountains around us. The larger Hidden Lake lay nearby, flush against the rock face of the valley walls.

Clinton Valley mirrored in a swamp pool

Small waterfall flowing into Hidden Lake

Looking back down the Clinton Valley from Prairie Lake

Clinton River in The Prairie

A little further on, we stopped for lunch alongside Prairie Lake; the sun had finally appeared over the northern wall as the valley widened and we could admire the beautiful views back down along our path across the lake waters.

Strange reflections at Prairie Lake - can you spot
the moths?

Leaving the lake, we soon reached the part of the Prairie where the Clinton River had decided to change course three days earlier, removing a large section of track in the process. The flood damage was evident by flattened vegetation, bridges shifted from their footings and a new channel.

Yesterday they had been transporting trampers across this section by helicopter, but not for us; the Milford machine cannot be blocked for too long and DOC staff had already "ribboned" a new path and dropped in new bridges to re-open the track. Their efficiency in keeping the Milford Track going is to be admired. We walked on through without even getting our feet wet.

Mackinnon Pass from The Prairie

Ribbonwood forest near Mackinnon Pass

The Bus Stop shelter (no need for it today)

At the end of The Prairie the track started to climb slowly; beech forest changing to ribbonwood, with its clusters of white flowers, as we got higher. Passing the Bus Stop Shelter and the guided walkers' Pompolona Hut, we crossed the first of a several swingbridges over rocky sidestreams. Waterfalls tumbled off the rock face of The Castle, 1500m above us. Once again the forest slowly changed as we made a short steep climb up into lichen-draped beech trees, finally reaching the short sidetrack that took us into Mintaro Hut, our accommodation for the night. One really nice aspect of the forest in the upper Clinton Valley was the amount of bird life; it was one of the few times in New Zealand that we had heard an ongoing chorus of birds rather than the occasional calls of one or two species.

St Quintin Falls

Rocky stream bed

Waterfalls pouring off Castle Mountain

Beech forest near Mintaro Hut

The route up to the pass

Nearing the top (Mt Balloon
in the background)

Conventional wisdom upon reaching Mintaro states that, if the weather is good you should head for Mackinnon Pass and its vast vistas that day; you can never count on fine weather persisting into the next day.

So, after a long lunch, we headed off for a pack-free 500m climb up the steep head of the valley, passing through beech then shrub then tussock grass, to to take in the magnificent views in the afternoon sunshine; Mt Balloon and Mt Elliot to the north, Mt Hart and the large glacier-capped cirque to the south and the panorama of the Fiordland mountains to the east from the lookout at The 12-Second Drop - magic!

Lookind down th Arthur Valley
from Mackinnon Pass

Mt Elliot (2203m), the Jervois Glacier and and Mt Balloon (1853m) from the pass

1000m walls of the cirque below
Mt Forlorn

The Fiordland mountains from Mackinnon Pass

Looking down onto Mintaro Lake
beneath Castle Mountain

Back down at Mintaro again, we joined a group sunning themselves on a helipad near Mintaro Lake. To lay back in the sun and look up at the sheer walls of the valley 1300-1500m above us was a special moment.

That night after dinner, I wandered outside in the early night to watch Orion setting over the Mackinnon Pass and the Southern Cross rising above the Clinton Valley. Clear as a bell, I heard it; for the first time in New Zealand, the unmistakeable call of a kiwi. It was a perfect ending to a glorious day.

Day 3: Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut - over the pass

Barely a cloud in the sky - we couldn't believe our good fortune as we retraced our steps up the switchbacks of the Mackinnon Pass, this time with fully loaded packs. However, we were fresh and only took 5 minutes longer than the previous day before we crested the ridge to be greeted by the same panoramic views - the same, yet different in the strong morning light, Balloon Peak and Mt Elliot now dark silhouettes with the sun directly behind them, while the details of the Fiordland mountains to the west stood out in the sun. A guide with a group of the guided walkers said that he had only had good weather like this on two of the 24 occasions he had crossed the pass - we were indeed fortunate.

Monument to Quintin Mackinnon on the pass

Reflections in a shady tarn

Tarn on Mackinnon Saddle

The steep western face of the
Mackinnon Pass

We didn't stay as long this time at the monument marking the pass, but it seemed an appropriate place to celebrate our 1000th tramping kilometre in New Zealand, clocked up somewhere during the ascent. The track climbed up higher through the snow grass to the northern end of the saddle, passing several pretty tarns in the process.

Looking back from time to time, the sheer walls of the western face of Mackinnon Pass became increasingly apparent as we climbed to the high point of 1154m. The short descent to Pass Hut for a quick visit to the "loo with a view" looking down the Clinton Canyon, and we were on our way down the 950m descent into the Arthur Valley.

One last look back down shade-filled
Clinton Valley

Changing vegetation on the western face of the pass - Mt Hart (182m) in the centre

The track sidled across the massive walls of Balloon Peak, leaving the snowgrass to enter a zone of low shrubs and curving slowly around the base of Mt Elliott, far below the Jervois Glacier.

A rocky platform seemed to offer a good spot for a break; obviously others thought the same as a kea soon appeared to check us out and see if we had anything worth eating, stealing or tearing to pieces.

So what have you got for me, eh?

Top cascade of Roaring Burn

Leaving the kea to amuse the newly arrived, we continued our descent, entering a low forest of ribbon wood and stubby beech. Soon we arrived at a set of wooden steps which took us down quickly beside Roaring Burn, as it tumbled down through the water-smoothed grey-white striped bedrock in a series of beautiful cascades.

One of the many cascades on the burn

Weka and two chicks

Mossy beech forest on the way to
Sutherland Falls

The track became rockier and more uneven as it continued to descend into taller beech forest, finally emerging at the junction to Quintin Hut (guided walkers only). Here, after a bite of lunch, we dropped our packs at the adjacent shelter and headed up for the one hour sidetrip to Sutherland Falls. Just after the shelter, a weka and her two chicks wandered out from the bush to bid us good day, while the bird chorus in the upper Arthur Valley seemed as rich as that in the upper Clinton - it seems that the DOC program to control stoats is producing good results.

The track took us through low ribbonwood/mahoe forest and across a rocky knoll with patches of moss-covered beech, from where the sound of the falls became increasingly apparent. Turning a corner, they appeared through a gap in the canopy, all 580m plunging from the glacier fed Lake Quill in three mighty leaps to the valley floor before surging away in the silver stream of the Arthur River. Sutherland Falls is the fifth highest permanent waterfall in the world - what more can you say. The falls are an incredible spectacle; as we approached the wind generated by them became stronger till we reached a point where we stood in a refreshing stream of fine mist, blasted horizontally in every direction by the force of the 580m drop; any closer and we would have been saturated.

The Sutherland Falls - all
580m of them!

First glimpse of the Sutherland Falls

Sunlight on the Arthur River
just below the falls

Looking back up to Mt Balloon and
the route down from Mackinnon Pass

Lady of the Snows (1832m)

Returning to the shelter, we put our packs back on and headed off, following the Arthur River downstream, stopping at a small clearing for one last lingering view of Sutherland Falls and the massive rock face of Mt Hart. After a while, we reached a section of boardwalk fixed to the side of a rock bluff and at the end of it lay Dumpling Hut, nestled into the northern base of Mt Elliot.

There was just enough time to rush down to a nearby pool in the Arthur River for a quick skinnydip and clean up in its icy water before we were joined by lots more of our fellow trampers. However, if the cold hadn't chased us from the water, the sandflies would have.

The top part of the Sutherland Falls between
Mt Hart and Mt Mackenzie

Feeling refreshed, we sat on the deck of Dumpling Hut, joining a line of trampers, relaxing in that rarest of phenomena - a hot Fiordland sun. That night we were treated to a 5 point richter scale earth tremor; enough to give the bunkrooms a good old shake and a reminder of the mighty forces at play and still capable of altering this dramatic landscape.

Hot Fiordland sun shining through
a beech tree

The Arthur River and Valley

Old trampers taking in the sun at Dumpling Retirement Village

Day 4: Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point

Headlamps began to flash and packs began to rustle in the bunkrooms well before dawn; some trampers keen not to miss the 2pm boat from Sandfly Point, 18km away, were getting off to an early start - too early for the liking of some, but one up all up in a hut full of people and reluctantly we joined the busy throng milling about the kitchen, steamed up with cooking porridge and hot tea. A low mist hung over the Arthur Valley obscuring the steep walls; while the prospect of rain was far away, we were to see a different more sombre mood of the Milford Track today.

Recent tree avalanche

The Mackay Creek

We headed out along the well-formed even track, following the edge of the Arthur River through the valley forest. As we passed over a couple of wide slips, the piles of broken dead trees at their bases attested to the powerful forces still shaping this landscape.

The calm waters of the Arthur near The Boatshed


Soon we reached "The Boatshed", where we crossed over the Arthur on a sturdy bridge, the still green waters at this point providing a mirror for the trees along its edge. A series of high boardwalks took us over a swampy section bringing us to Mackay Creek, with its clear blue-green waters tumbling out of a mossy forest setting over the river boulders. Even more spectacular were the Mackay Falls just upstream, where the foaming waters plunged into a deep turquoise pool.

Pushing on, we followed the left bank of the Arthur down, the flattened grasses and trapped debris giving an indication of the torrent that had raged through here a week earlier; and here we were following a clear, shallow river, softly tinkling its way over its stoney bed. The track moved closer to the steep rock face of the valley wall, where we passed under the path of several tree avalanches (the soil on the rocky slopes is very thin and, if too dry or too wet, a tree might topple bringing down every tree below it to leave a long narrow scar and pile of dead wood at the bottom)

Scar of a big slip across the track

Mackay Falls and their turquoise
plunge pool

The river gradually became stiller and the valley floor swampier; we were approaching the upper end of Ada Lake, formed when a large slip dammed the Arthur River. As we rounded the edge of the lake, we could see glimpses of its perfectly still quiet waters through the beech trees, reflecting the misty walls of the valley. The forest was changing character as we moved further down the valley and tree-ferns were becoming increasingly common along the track. An interesting passage around bluff, where the track had been handcut into the rock by pick, and we arrived at Giant's Gate in time for an early lunch at the shelter with some of our fellow trampers.

View form the Rock Cutting

Mists in the Arthur Valley near Ada Lake

A tree lined sidestream at Giant's Gate

Giant's Gate Falls

Nearby was the impressive spectacle of Giant's Gate Falls, where a sidestream plunged out of a gap in the grey rockface and flowed down to the lake in a crystal-clear pale blue stream. As we ate, the clouds began to finally lift and fade away, revealing one last sunny look at the Arthur Valley and its glacial setting.

Our trip was almost over. Soon the sounding of water tumbling over rocks indicated that we had passed the barrage of Ada Lake and were back alongside the downstream part of the Arthur River. The path became broader and flatter and, almost unexpectedly, the outline of the Sandfly Shelters appeared out of the forest; so-called freedom walkers to the shelter on the left, guided walkers to the shelter on the right - never the twain shall mix.

The edge of Lake Ada

At last the sun returns to the
Arthur Valley

Almost there - the track becomes
a tree-fern lined footpath

The end of the track
The enclosed shelter was welcome as Sandfly Point is most aptly named, but we did not have to wait long until the red shape of our boat chugged slowly up the reach to take us all back to Milford Sound and a waiting bus. We climbed on board; the boat pulled out and we looked back one last time up to the sun shining on the distant peaks at the far end of the steeply-walled Arthur Valley. Our journey on the Milford Track was over.

The red boat arrives to ferry trampers back to Milford Sound

Farewell to the Milford Track - One last look up the
(now) sun-filled Arthur Valley

Blue on blue - Milford Sound silhouettes

So, is the the Milford Track the finest walk in the world - or even New Zealand? That is a question that shouldn't be answered - all the tracks have their particular appeal and characteristics. The Routeburn and Rees-Dart were fantastic walks, as was the Milford. I'm not sure how pleasant a bad weather day on the Milford would be and, because of the need to book so far ahead, there is a strong possibility that you might not see the views from Mackinnon Pass, or might have to wade waste-deep down the track beside Arthur River. Then, no two wilderness experiences are ever the same.

We had played the Milford Lottery and won; it is definitely worth taking a ticket.